Wine tastings: Everyone for themselves

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In theory, the wine tasting is a wine lover’s utopia; dozens of bottles of (potentially) great wine free for the taking. So when an invitation arrives on my doorstep asking if I’ll attend this tasting or that, turning it down would be a sign of insanity, surely?

Well, yes. And, well, no.

The decision to go to any wine tasting is often made under the assumption, and anticipation, of how good it is going to be. Endless tastes of wine! Fine Bordeaux, Burgundy and everything else! Every sip a winner!

And so along I go, effervescent with excitement.

Seldom, if ever, does the mind consider the reality of many big public tastings:  a room of punters packed in tighter than the Northern line at rush hour. The Lingering Larrys who hover over the bottles, preventing anyone else from receiving a sample. And then there is that inevitable crowd of people who arrived drenched in a fog of cologne.

So what do I do? As a newly anointed British citizen, I do what everyone else in my adopted home does: I tut and mutter under my breath.

I have learned, over time, that there is a critical mass for wine tastings. Too few people and it can be sparse and awkward, particularly if a proprietor keeps hovering over your left shoulder, curious to know what you think following every sip. Too many people and it can seem as though you’ve waited 10 minutes just for a thimble full of wine (the retailers Naked and Virgin spring to mind).

A wine tasting needs to be just the right size. One in which you can lose yourself in the crowd but not feel as though you’ve waited so long for a sip that when you return home you’ll find your children have grown up and left for university.

The reason I write about this is because there is one tasting that I’ve been meaning to write about for more than a month now. Back in September I found myself at the Berry Bros & Rudd Wine Club tasting, held — where else? — in the Long Room at Lord’s Cricket Ground. It was a warm evening, the room looked onto the pitch and the late-summer breeze could be felt through the open windows. It was a very Berry’s crowd, too, which meant that my Canadian twang and lack of red trousers almost certainly marked me as an outsider. But no matter.

The list of wines was generous — 24 in all — and the group was big but not heaving. Perfect.

A British wine critics recently said that there is no venue better for a wine tasting than Lord’s Cricket Ground. I would tend to agree, even if it means my journey home is slightly convoluted.

And so what of this tasting? Much to my long-suffering girlfriend’s chagrin, this was one where I wrote detailed notes for each wine. I loved the Old World white wines, from the Le Caillou Blanc de Chateau Talbot 2012 (grassy, light and floral with a hint of caramel) to  the Bianco dei Colli Della Toscana Comitale 2013 (bright flavours of lychee and passion fruit with wet stones).

Then there were the Old World reds, such as the Domaine Jean Fournier Marsannay Clos du Roy 2011 (brambly fruits with a great mid-palate and a long finish) that ticked nearly every box for a good pinot noir, or the Celler de Capcanes Cabrida Garnatxa Vinyes Velles 2009 (deep, dark, black fruits with notes of cedar and a broody complexity) that showed how much great wine can be found in Spain.

Perhaps the most interesting wine on tasting was Chile’s Bodegas RE Chardonnoir 2012. This is a white wine made from 60% chardonnay and 40% pinot noir that smells like a Champagne, giving off nutty aromas of yeast and biscuits as a result of spending two years on its lees, while the mouth is lush and full, offering subtle hints of oak and a well-rounded finish.

These were but a few of the two-dozen wines around the room. And even though I didn’t like everything I tried (the Santa Celina Torrontes 2011 and Mullineux Kloof Street Chenin Blanc 2013 both left me wanting), I walked away happy in the knowledge that I found at least six that I loved without having to partake in a rugby scrum to try them.

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Fake bottles and dopers: A treatise on cheating

Anyone who knows me is likely aware there are two things I love in equal measure: wine and cycling.

While it seems the two topics are as different from each other as carbon fibre and malolactic fermentation, there is one way in which they are very similar – and it’s something few people might have thought about before.

Bear with me, because this is perhaps one of the most tenuous links I’ve ever made and potentially one of the most barmy things I’ve ever written. But don’t worry; I’m not going to get all philosophical here. There will be no treatise on cycling and wine, no ode to the bike and the bottle.

No rhyming couplets about riding through the vineyards of Bordeaux.

No rambling words extolling the virtues of a fine right bank merlot.

Absolutely, certainly, most definitely: a big fat no.

Instead, I’m going to talk about cheating and lies, two things that have done a disservice to cycling and fine wine, and unfortunately show little sign of abating any time soon.

I started thinking about all of this not long after I heard the news American cyclist Lance Armstrong gave up defending himself against the US Anti-Doping Agency’s allegations he used performance-enhancing drugs during his career.

Doping is a topic many cycling fanatics hate to discuss most of all, primarily because it is a constant reminder the sport has a shady underbelly where dishonest people cheat for personal gain.

And while the Lance Armstrong story has been rumbling on for years, fresh allegations of cheating in the sport never fail to send daggers through the hearts those who wanted to believe the sport had changed for the better.

The cycling world has endured much disappointment in the past 20 years. So many of the most famous names, the biggest icons, turned out to be little more than fakes.

Unfortunately we are finding the same to be true in the wine world. And we need not look back too far in time to find the sorry evidence.

In the first half of this year it seemed the wine world was collapsing upon itself like a house of cards. Rudy Kurniawan was indicted in the spring for allegedly selling $1.3-million worth of fake wine, while in June directors at Burgundy negociant Labouré-Roi were detained under suspicion the firm faked two million bottles of wine.

Things have become so bad that some experts suggest a great deal of wine, mostly old Burgundy, sold at auction around the world is actually fake. Rather than coming from the finest grand cru vineyards, they are, in fact, no finer than a bottle of basic vin de pays.

So what is a wine drinker to do? Well as any fule kno, if you play with fire, there’s a chance you’ll get burned. When doping got out of hand in cycling, German broadcasters that were sick of being let down by the sport took the extreme measure of pulling their Tour de France coverage. Should fine wine collectors and investors boycott auctions where the old Burgundy looks too good to be true?

Put it this way. If no one bought Rudy Kurniawan’s wine, would he have made it as far as he did?

On not drinking a wine before its time (And how to do it cheaply)

Okay, so I’ve been admonished.

Friends and readers who say they just want to buy a modest bottle of wine and not have to endure wade through my ramblings about posh wines have spoken their minds.

“Write about wine I can actually afford,” people have said.

And I will, but not before I say something important about wine that just happens to involve bottles costing a lot of money.

Here goes: I’d say it’s safe very few of us actually get to drink wine of any significant age. Wine we see in specialist shops – and particularly supermarkets – tends to be released at a relatively young age for early drinking. That is a fact.

It is widely known that most bottles sold are opened on the same day they are bought; only true wine nerds care to mess about with any of that cellaring faff (people like me, I suppose). Most of the world lives bottle to bottle.

Add to this the fact producers sell a lot of wine young because they need the revenue and you have a society full of wine drinkers who have never tried something truly mature.

This is a shame. And I will tell you why.

Never a wine before its time

Orson Welles famously said in advertisements for wine brand Paul Masson (ironically not one you would *ever* age in a cellar), “We will sell no wine before its time.”

Even if Paul Masson wasn’t the sort of wine you would brag about drinking, the message was at least right.

A couple weeks ago this mantra was reinforced in my mind when I attended a wine tasting of the 2003 and 2004 vintages of Bordeaux estates Chateau Calon-Segur and Chateau Phelan-Segur at an event hosted by Schroders for personal finance journalists (full disclosure: Schroders organised and paid for the wines). First, we started the night with Joh. Jos. Prüm’s Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Spätlese 2003, which itself was an education in drinking medium-term aged riesling.

The aroma of gasoline/petroleum was almost off-putting at first, hitting your olfactory centre with a pungent rush that might have turned off shy wine drinkers. This was a far cry from your father’s bottle of Black Tower.

After this, we sat down for the main event, where we compared the 2003/04 Calon-Segur with the 2003/04 Phelan-Segur. The Calon-Segur, known for being the bigger, better and more expensive of the two, was still tight and closed at nearly a decade old.

Meanwhile, the 2003 Phelan was starting to show its age a little more and, arguably, was more mature and closer to being ready for drinking.

A few days later the Segur’s youth was driven home when I drank something truly mature – a bottle of Chateau Lafite-Rothschild 1978.

I can’t really help myself but transform into Miles from Sideways and bore you to tears with the way the wine was showing its age by bricking at the edge, how the tannins were full integrated into the wine, or how it had aromas of leather, cedar and tobacco.

But I will say the exercise illustrated just how much potential the wine would have had if it had been, well, not opened so soon.

This point was re-affirmed the day after the Lafite experience when, armed with a bottle of Calon-Segur 2004 that had been opened but not used at the tasting earlier in the week (I pushed the cork back into the bottle, to keep it perfectly fresh for a few more days), I opened again it for a friend at dinner.

And it was…still tighter than a rusted nut and loaded with tannin.

If all this wasn’t enough, yet more mature wine came my way. The following evening we cracked open a bottle of Dom Perignon 1996.

You know how a lot of Champagne is very acidic, bright, bubbly and seems to cut through everything you might have eaten, including your gums?

You see, you don’t get that with properly mature Champagne. Everything just…sings in harmony.

Now to the money-saving bit

So here it is. If you want something with more maturity and a decent dose of bottle age, Rioja is a good bet. I am always blown away by how cheap and well-made the wines of Rioja are. Something like a gran reserva will have spent a lot of time in barrel and yet more in bottle before being released, quite often for a fraction of what you’ll pay for equally fine wines from Bordeaux or Burgundy. Same with Port, Madeira and Sherry.

If you want to drink something grown up and complex, I’d look south to the Iberian peninsula.

Recently I bought a bottle of Rioja from the 1996 vintage for less than £15. In general, unloved wine regions can be a source of wonderful wine bargains. I bought a bottle of Chateau Calon Montagne-St Emilion 1996 for €8 when I was in Bordeaux. Why was it so cheap? Because the Montagne-St Emilion appellation is a lesser cousin to St Emilion and, therefore, is not as popular among wine drinkers.

And there you go; something affordable to consider.

Sara Benwell: The ABC club might still be going strong, but they are just plain wrong

“I love every wine except chardonnay….
I’ll have the Chablis please”

Mythbusters 2: Why you should ignore the chardonnay haters

Last time I guest-blogged for Geordie, I wrote about how I thought rosé got a bad press and why you shouldn’t dismiss it out of hand.

Continuing in the same vein, today I’m going to talk about chardonnay and tell you why the people who say “I never drink chardonnay” are idiots who should immediately be ignored.

But first I’m going to tell you a story.

A good friend of mine (he works in sales) had taken a prospect out to lunch. The prospect, whilst perusing the wine list, said:

“I’m pretty flexible about wine, I’ll drink almost anything, but I won’t touch Chardonnay”

My friend, very sensibly, handed over the wine list and suggested that since the prospect knew what they liked, perhaps they would like to choose the wine. (First rule of any client-facing industry, always let them choose the wine).

The prospect quickly agreed and made their selection – they chose a Chablis.

Now this kind of sums up the entire point I’m going to make. Some people are snobby and dismissive of chardonnay without even fully understanding what it actually is. And even amongst those who should know better, the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) Club is still going strong.

Why do people hate chardonnay?

I think there are three main reasons that people say they hate chardonnay, one of which I can sort of understand, but should be corrected, one of which is a bit depressing and the third of which is downright unacceptable.

1. “I don’t like oak”

Okay, so a lot of people say they don’t like chardonnay because they don’t like oak. Now, on the one hand this is sort of acceptable; a lot of Chardonnay out there is heavily oaked and if you don’t like that style, some might tell you not to take the risk. But this is also very misguided, narrow thinking.

White Burgundy is widely acknowledged as being one of the greatest white wines in the world. But it’s made from the chardonnay grape.

What’s more, white Burgundy is often aged in oak barrels before being bottled, meaning that it will have a degree of oak flavours. Of course, the amount of oak detectable in the wine depends how much new oak was used and how much time it spent in barrel.

Conversely, if the wine comes from Chablis it might not have touched any oak at all and will therefore not have those vanilla flavours caused by oak.  Side note – many of your ABCs will drink white Burgundy, particularly Chablis, not realising it is made with chardonnay grapes.

So why is oak considered to be such a bad thing?

The main reason (I think) is that in the 1990s, when the chardonnay grape was (gasp!) extremely fashionable, everyone wanted a piece of the action. Unfortunately going against all the principles that made white Burgundy great, this wine was produced on an industrial scale, often from huge vineyards in hot climates (California) where the grapes ripened easily but lacked character.

Instead of ageing their chardonnay in oak barrels (or even tank) over a long period of time, winemakers who wanted to add oak flavours had to fine another way to do this at a lower cost.

The answer they came up with was to use wooden planks or shavings that are dropped into the wine while it is fermenting. This can often overpower the wine and produces the horrible, cheap, cloying, sawdust-y wine that so often pops into an ABC’s head when you say the word chardonnay.

Another problem is the use of malolactic fermentation, a point referenced in the film Sideways. This is what produces much of that buttery flavour ABCs detest in chardonnay. It takes the harsh malic acid and converts it into softer lactic acid, and in turn makes the wine seem softer and buttery.

So yes, there are some terribly made and awful tasting Chardonnays out there, but if you think that’s a reason to avoid them altogether then you are kind of missing the point! SOME chardonnays are rubbish, but some are exquisite.

2. “I know what I like and chardonnay isn’t it”

These people are the ones who are afraid to go outside their comfort zone and don’t like to try new things.  Now obviously you shouldn’t listen to these fools because taking wine advice from someone who is afraid to step outside one variety is like asking for directions from a blind and deaf Englishman who finds himself in France for the first time.

Aside from the obvious reasons not to listen to these people, it’s also a bit baffling. If there is any grape they’re willing to go outside their comfort zone for it’s a chardonnay.

Chardonnays done well are light, subtle, unassuming with neutral flavours like citrus and melon, and the oakiness can produce those amazing (but not necessarily overbearing) creamy vanilla flavours. Hardly something that should scare the pants off of anyone really (unless you’re a lover of sweet wine perhaps).

3. “I wouldn’t be seen dead with a glass of Chardonnay”

Now these people are the really awful ones. The ones who have decided that chardonnay just isn’t that fashionable any more, and that the ‘cool’ thing to do is to steer clear. Fortunately these people are easy to fox, buy them Chablis, tell them they’re drinking White Burgundy, offer them a glass of Champers – and then laugh at their utter stupidity.

So what is there to love about it?

I’ve already touched on this a little, but just in case you aren’t already sold I’ll sell it some more. The best thing about chardonnay in my mind is its versatility. Because it’s naturally subtle and smooth, winemakers can develop a whole host of different flavours, textures and styles.

More than this though, they can take the grape and imprint their personality on to it, and as long as their personality isn’t wood planks then you are going to get an interesting wine that tells you a lot about the person who made it. It is also the kind of grape that can be grown in a variety of regions and climates which further adds to its versatility.

The second thing I love about it is it’s dryness. Chardonnay tends to be much drier than sauvignon blanc, though for some reason people often assume the opposite, and if you know me even a little you’ll know that in my book – the drier the better!

The third thing I love about chardonnay is that its grapes are almost always used when Champagne is made, and a life without Champagne would be a far poorer life.

In fact next time you hear someone saying “Anything but chardonnay!” order a bottle of fizz and then calmly inform them that they aren’t allowed any.

Sara Benwell works in the world of PR for a London firm specialising in finance. She blogs about politics, digital, social, finance and wine. You can follow her on Twitter @SaraBenwell

Photo: Freedigitalphotos.net

Waitrose assures us bottles on shelves not affected by suspected fraud at Labouré-Roi

By now we have all become familiar with the suspected wine fraud that is the case of Labouré-Roi selling bottles of wine that were passed off for something they were not.

Indeed, the situation has become such a concern for producers in the region that the Burgundy Wine Board has joined the investigation as a civil party to gain access to the fraud office’s files in the matter. This is so it can do an analysis of its own and determine how much the debacle has damaged its members’ reputations.

This past weekend while I was browsing the wine section in Waitrose, it wasn’t long before I stumbled across a bottle of Labouré-Roi, on this occasion a Cote de Beaune-Villages 2007.

Knowing the Labouré-Roi affair covered all levels of wine, ranging from village wines all the way up to Grand Cru betwen 2005 and 2009, as reported on Decanter.com, the alarm bells started ringing in my head.

While I was tempted to buy this bottle just to see what it might be like and maybe even try to find a way to determine if it was one of those affected by the alleged fraud, the truth is I really didn’t want to touch it with a barge pole.

However, via direct message on Twitter Waitrose told me their wines go through a rigorous quality control process and none of the wines they are selling have been affected by the timeline of the fraud, so shoppers should feel confident when making decisions.